Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Sunday 30 April 2017

Analysis: We need a new Land Commission to create profitable farm holdings

A new system of land re-distribution will not be easy
A new system of land re-distribution will not be easy

Richard Hackett

The starting gun has been fired and the process to decide on the next round of the Common Agricultural Policy has started.

Over the next three, possibly four, years, there will be a succession of leaks, headlines, proclamations and scare tactics before the final programme will be agreed and implemented.

The CAP has evolved to a very high level and reaches into all aspects of Irish agriculture. While the pros and cons of the CAP can and are debated until the well tagged and fully traceable cows come home, in many ways it is has been very successful.

It provides safe food and enough food at an affordable price to the people that pay over money to operate it, which is no small thing. It protects biodiversity, protects the environment, and has put in place the most comprehensive system of food traceability that the world has ever seen.

However, as regards primary agriculture, the CAP has evolved to a point that is acting as a sea anchor to the development of the sector, not a positive force in its development.

The main problem with the current CAP is the system of basic payments based on entitlements. Entitlements can be directly traced back to output 25 years ago and it is this historical baggage that is stifling innovation and putting the long term sustainability of the sector in such jeopardy.

Basing income on historical output, regardless of current output, will over time hold back development.

Another issue that is having a negative impact on Irish agriculture is land structure.

The Land Commission was established in 1881, its primary role was the re-distribution of farmland in Ireland, a critical life-saving policy measure given the impact the famine had on the country thirty years beforehand.

The work of the Land Commission is indelibly stamped on the Irish landscape: the standardised houses and sheds, the concrete and wire fencing, the wrought iron gates.

The Commission's most lasting impact is the average farm size we now have.

A critical decision for the Commission was to decide on the size of holding necessary to create an economically viable unit.

Now however, too many of these small landholdings are providing more of a headache than a viable income source.

Investment

Many holdings require significant investment in terms of livestock housing facilities, drainage, hedgerow maintenance, weed control and more importantly they require time input.

The income from these holdings will not cover the cost of these investments. Over time, these holdings are deteriorating, the potential income is reducing and from a National perspective, overall output potential is decreasing.

There are often pressures to maintain ownership of these holdings for historical rather than economic reasons.

Previous generations weren't pressurised into farming small units for altruistic concerns, they started farming because they could generate a viable income from farming. That is not the case now.

The goalposts have shifted.

Populations respond to economic forces and regardless of interventions or payments, owners of small landholdings are voting with their feet and investment capital, to the detriment of agricultural development and more seriously in some cases, to their own well-being.

If we are to have a truly viable agricultural industry in Europe and in Ireland, the upcoming CAP should address two things.

Firstly the payment received for farming, the current basic payment, should be completely separated from the historical model that has evolved over successive programmes.

Secondly the new CAP should establish a 'Land Commission nua' to restructure the land to create more viable holdings.

The market, whether through selling, renting or leasing, has not and will not have enough impact to carve out a new land structure at the scale necessary for a viable industry.

A new system of land re-distribution will not be easy; the old Land Commission didn't have it easy either. Any system that has perceived 'winners' and 'losers' is always open to criticism.

Calls will be made that imposing larger land holdings will destroy rural Ireland.

Again, evidence would not support this. Over time, the importance of agriculture in the Irish economy has diminished, while at the same time practically the only houses built over the last 10 years have been one-off housing, predominantly in rural areas.

Rural Ireland has enough of its own attractions outside of agriculture to thrive.

Insisting that agriculture remains fossilised in a structure 50 years out of date will not do farming or the rural community, any favours in the long term.

Dr. Richard Hackett is an agricultural consultant based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.


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